How living in the US made me realize how aliens must feel if they finally visit us.
I wanted to write a blog post about the thought of going home, now that it’s so immanent.
When I used to read other travelers’ thoughts about being back home after traveling the world, I always thought it was a bit condescending. How they whine about how hard it is to be back home and boo friggin hoo, nobody understands me.
I understand them a lot more now though.
So I’m going to try to explain how traveling for a long period of time really does change you your perspectives, and I will do my best to not come off as pretentious (but no doubt it will make some people roll their eyes reading the first bit).
People often get annoyed when travellers say that travel makes you grow because it’s just so vague. They want evidence. Proof. A dramatic showing of change in character.
But it’s just very hard to explain how without oversharing (to the point of uncomfortable intimacy) and without sounding like a hippie.
It raises a lot of eyebrows when trying to explain how you grew as a person by becoming more reflective thanks to the perspectives you’ve gained on life, people, cultures,… Perspectives that you’ve never imagined you were able to have before. the unknown unknowns.
That is because society often tells us that you grow as a person by following the routing of going to college, getting a job, getting a husband, buying a house, getting children, gaining responsibilities in life, etc…
Some people are naturally very self-reflective and make a lot of introspections of what is the meaning of life and how does the society around them work and what their role is in that. They don’t NEED to travel for it. But a lot of other people will only delve into their own psyche when they rip themselves out of their comfort zone.
I think I’m a bit in the middle of the two. While I consider myself a person capable of self-reflecting, but there’s only so much I could learn of another culture (and consequently my own position in mine) without immersing myself into it.
I learned a fair bit about south-american society and history in my time being there. I stayed at a few local friends’ places but other than that I wasn’t really able to communicate with other locals properly in their own language. I dived into Italian culture in my time in Rome, and Dutch culture in my studies in Amsterdam and gained a lot of new perspectives of different places. But it was still quite close to home. It somehow didn’t feel hard to see society through their eyes.
It was however my experience of living in the US for half a year and traveling a bit in the country that really made me go through what they call “culture shock”. It finally made me appreciate the study of anthropology, where the researcher places importance on experiential immersion in the culture. I really wasn’t prepared to find what I saw through Americans’ eyes.
It wasn’t because I didn’t know what America was before I came, quite the contrary. I have unwillingly devoured American culture even before I could read. I have a quite strong American accent because I watched all my American cartoons with subtitles, even when I couldn’t read yet. I often jokingly say that I learned my English from the Simpsons when people ask me about my accent. But I didn’t just learn English, I learned a lot about an entire culture that was not mine.
I’d say about 50% of the media I devoured was American. And I really devoured it.
I watched about 4 hours of TV a day, started reading books in English when I was 14, watched satire shows about American politics and news like The Daily Show, listened to a lot of indie music through blogs and myspace, and have been addicted to the internet that is predominently American (reddit, youtube vloggers, all my webcomics,…)
I always kind of realized it was American, but I didn’t go look for it intentionally. I wasn’t obsessed with the US, au contraire. It just… happened. like it probably did for most Belgians.
When you suddenly go to that country and find out you share so many things, only they don’t really know any of the other cultural entertainment you grew up with feels pretty damn weird.
I see it as if I’ve been living on a different planet, and we’ve always been observing these “Americans” from our spaceships.
And we kind of think we know them, because we learned a lot from the observations made and sent to us. The reality shows, the dramas, thinking this is actually close to a reflection of society.
But at the same time those people felt so unfamiliar to me. Characters In movies and series like Friends, Sex and the City, or how I met your mother, and all those high school movie characters, feel quite fictional in Belgium (at least to me). I had never met people like that, they were truly works of fiction for me, live action cartoon characters.
And it’s like I was suddenly sent to that planet as an observant. And I suddenly realize that the ‘fiction’ was actually based on real people. i’ve met people very similar to those tv-characters. And it made me realize that the reality was not too far off from this entire chunk of culture fed to us from a distance.
But at the same time, of course it was not entirely the same. The culture fed to us was just the mold of an actual organic and fluid thing. An interpretation of culture. A predefined stereotype that I have incorporated, and through which I interpret everything myself.
And therefore some Americans I’ve met get quite upset when I tell them they’re very comparable to the culture I’ve been fed as a kid.
I should have been open minded and not have the prejudice of putting people here in boxes like the movies do. But it’s just so weird to discover the same patters as the ones we have always been observing. It’s the strangest feeling to realize how American society is structured in a way you thought was fictional, and I keep trying to make sense of it.
When I started my first year of uni, I failed my sociology and anthropology courses 3 (!!!) times because they didn’t make sense to me.
I’m curious to dive into these again.
I have compared this bewildering experience of ‘the american society’ to reading several tutorials on how to swim, and seeing load of video footage on swimming.
And suddenly you get pushed into a pool.
That’s what living in the US was like for me.
And it was a very mind boggling experience.
These are the things I will be taking back home, a completely new perspective on another culture. It’s not precise. It’s definitely still subject to change. It might not be comparable to other people’s experience going to the US. it’s might also not be comparable to the experience of other travellers who have gone to other parts of the world.
but I’ve grown and learned. And those vague feelings seem mutual among my fellow travellers.
I’ve gained insights that that make me wonder how Belgian society actually really is like as well.
Insights that will make me feel different, and incapacitated to explain why home has become different while it remained the same. Because I am different. And I come back with new eyes.